An Interview with Deputy District Attorney, Nichole Smith

Dark wooden gavel on table

When Nichole Smith was very young, she wanted to become a doctor, or at least she thought she did. Eventually, the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, native found her interest in medicine waning as a fascination with legal stories and famous trials developed.

In high school, her interest in law was fully piqued when she joined the school's debate team, where the thrill of arguing, challenging ideas intelligently and persuading others convinced her that law was the field for her. She enrolled in Pennsylvania State University where she majored in crime, law, and justice with two minors: psychology and sociology. She saw up close what it would actually be like to practice law during an internship, and from that moment on, she was hooked.

After graduation, Nichole headed to law school in Pittsburgh at Duquesne University. She devoted many hours to learning about law, codes, and courtroom procedures, and along the way, developed a new way of thinking and looking at situations. After graduation, she practiced family law in Pittsburgh and today works as a deputy district attorney in the state capitol of Harrisburg.

Nichole Smith & Her Career

What jobs have you had in your career?

In law school, I dabbled in many internship and clinics. For a while in Pittsburgh, I practiced family law, which involved assisting indigent clients, from getting custody of their children to obtaining child support to petitioning the court for DNA testing to determine paternity.

I also interned at a small civil law firm in downtown Pittsburgh. That was a great experience because I learned that civil law was definitely something I did not want to do with my degree. It involved doing research for our clients about their legal problems (from property line disputes to personal injury lawsuits) and writing memos to my boss (the firm's owner and sole practitioner) or writing briefs to the court, who would read each side's written argument and rule on the case. The great thing about civil law is that if you don't like being in court and having to speak in front of people or argue a case, you may never have to step foot in a courtroom. It's mainly a battle of the paper. But for me, that was the reason I disliked civil law so much.

I'm currently a deputy district attorney, which requires me to appear in court almost every day. The District Attorney is the chief law enforcement officer in each respective county and is charged with prosecuting individuals who allegedly violate the criminal code of the state. As deputy DAs, we assist police during criminal investigations, authorize criminal charges, and represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in prosecuting criminals at all levels (from the preliminary hearing to trial to any appeals the defendant may file with the Superior and Supreme Courts after trial). We also represent the Commonwealth when a defendant has violated his probation or parole.

What do you enjoy most about your current position? Your career?

I love my job for endless reasons, but the primary one being it's never boring. There's always something going on or somewhere you have to be - it's hardly a desk job. Whether it's appearing in court, running out to a preliminary hearing, training police officers in the law, negotiating with defense attorneys, speaking with victims and witnesses, or being called out to crime scenes, there's always something to challenge you. And perhaps best of all: as a deputy DA, your job matters. What you do every day impacts someone - whether it's seeking justice for the victim of that crime or ensuring that a drug dealer is removed from a neighborhood.

What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?

My greatest success was in successfully prosecuting a young man who was stalking his teenage ex-girlfriend. He wouldn't let her go, and she was young enough to be charmed back into his abusive arms time after time. She hated testifying against him, even though I had to firmly push her into doing so, and it was heartbreaking to see her dissolve into tears on the stand. But after he was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison, her father called me and thanked me. He told me that she was finally able to be the teenager she was-go out with her friends, wear what she wanted, see who she wanted-without the fear of her violent ex-boyfriend constantly hanging over her head. Her father was grateful that her ex-boyfriend's hold over her was gone. In that moment, of hearing "thank you," every struggle, every worry, every moment of work was worth it.

My biggest setback was the time that I prosecuted an alleged drug dealer. He had been convicted of the crime several times in the past and this time he was charged with selling drugs near a school. The jury, however, didn't believe my witness and found him not guilty. I was absolutely devastated that the jury let him walk back out on to the street. I was torn between my own guilt, believing that I should have done a better job, and an overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness. At some point in their careers, I think all prosecutors fall victim to that kind of thinking. The key is that you have to pull yourself out of that and go on to fight the next battle.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'm probably a career prosecutor, which means that I'll most likely end up staying in this field. My goal is simply become better at my job. There's always a way to improve yourself and always something more to learn. I'd like to just keep learning.

Anecdote about life as a deputy district attorney?

I don't have an anecdote, per se. But perhaps the best summary/insight of life as a DA was, surprisingly enough, given in the television show "The Practice." Normally, I don't consider "The Practice" a very accurate reflection of life as a lawyer on either side of the coin, but one little part in it is, for the most part, valid and inspiring:

Helen Gamble: I need it, Richard. Give it to me.
Richard Bay: What?
Helen Gamble: The speech. Why we do what we do.
Richard Bay: Oh, I am not really in the mood after...
Helen Gamble: PLEASE, Richard. I NEED it. Please give it to me. And don't just phone it in.
Richard Bay: Helen...
Helen Gamble: Please! Can't you see how demoralized I am?
Richard Bay: OK. (takes a deep breath) There are heroes in this world. They're called District Attorneys. They don't get to have clients, people who smile at them at the end of the trial, who look them in the eye and say, "thank you." Nobody is there to appreciate the District Attorney, because we work for the state. And our gratitude comes only from knowing there's a tide out there. A tide the size of a tsunami coming out of a bottomless cesspool. A tide called crime, which, if left unchecked will rob every American of his freedom. A tide which strips individuals of the privilege of being able to, to walk down a dark street or take twenty dollars out of an ATM machine without fear of being mugged. All Congress does is talk, but it's the District Attorney who grabs his sword, who digs into the trenches and fights the fight. Who dogs justice day, after day, after day without thanks, without so much as a simple pat on the back. But we do it. We do it, we do it because we are the crusaders, the last frontier of American justice. Knowing that if a man cannot feel safe, he can never, never feel free.
Helen Gamble: Thank you.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your law education. Where did you go to school? What was your undergrad degree in? Why did you choose the schools you chose?

I went to Penn State University for undergrad and earned a B.S. in crime, law, and justice with a double minor in psychology and sociology. I went to Duquesne University for law school. I chose Duquesne because it was small enough to afford opportunities for in-depth, one-on-one study with professors but large enough to boast several clinics and an outstanding moot court team. In addition, Duquesne is widely known for its alumni obtaining positions in the judiciary.

What do you need to do or have to get into law school? How is it different from applying to a school for undergrad?

To enter law school, you generally need a 4 year undergrad degree, an acceptable LSAT score, and letters of recommendation. The application process is unique in that applicants must join a central organization that organizes all of your applicant material. For instance, your LSAT scores are sent there, your letters of recommendation are housed there, etc. When you apply to any law school, they request your packet of information from that organization, which will send copies to whatever school asks.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education?

To be honest, nothing. There were peaks and valleys, but learning is never an easy process. I learned everything I needed to along the way, and even the hard lessons, I can't regret.

How has your education benefited your career?

In law, your education IS your career. You can't be a lawyer without passing the state's bar exam. You can't sit for the bar exam without graduating from an accredited law school. And you can't be a good lawyer without a solid legal education, which by definition includes an entirely new thought process. My husband's favorite welcome mat reads "A lawyer and a normal person live here." It's funny because it's true: A lawyer doesn't think like an ordinary person. Lawyers are trained to spot issues, to detect problems in their opponents' logic and argument, to look at a situation and pick out all the legal ramifications that go along with it. Lawyers have to survey the big picture situation in front of them and still identify all the "issues" (for example, the potential reasons for a lawsuit, or the potential crimes that were committed, or even those facts that are helpful to your case) that are buried in it. It's kind of a like those hidden-picture games when you were a child-how many issues/problems/helpful facts can you spot here? That ability is central to our career and it can only really be learned in law school.

What factors should prospective law students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain area?

Consider how much one-on-one help you'd like from professors. Larger schools may not be able to offer you that kind of assistance when the student/teacher ratio is so disparate. If you'd like a closer-knit environment that may be slightly less competitive, a smaller school may be better. Also consider what you want to do with your degree and whether name value may be significant to you later. If your goal is to achieve a position with a nationally-renowned civil law firm and pull down six figure salaries, then choosing an Ivy League school might be essential. Also consider what you want to do with your degree. If you want to be a trial attorney, then select a school with a strong moot court program. I can't stress enough how important it is to be surrounded by professors who actually practice law in a courtroom if you want to be a trial attorney.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It depends on your definition of a "good" job. If you want to get a job with a huge civil law firm, then you certainly need a school that has name power. But if you prefer criminal law and are seeking a position there, name can't substitute for a solid education. In government jobs-whether a district attorney or public defender-you will probably be thrown straight into the courtroom from the beginning. Given that, the judge isn't going to care nearly as much about what school you went to as much as he will your mastery of courtroom procedure, oral argument, and the rules of evidence.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in law?

The only way you can really decide if it's for you is by getting your hands in it. The best decision I ever made was volunteering for a legal internship while still in undergrad. I didn't get paid, but I did get a first-hand look at what it was like to really be a practicing attorney. You really need to see the job up close.

Law Career Information, Trends & Advice

Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

A typical day will involve phone calls to victims and witnesses (in order to ascertain the strength of your case); phone conversations with defense attorneys about the status of cases; calls with police officers who call in with legal questions on investigations. It will also usually include court appearances for preliminary hearings, trials, sentencings, or probation and parole revocations. As a prosecutor, you have two primary responsibilities: 1.) To represent the interests of the Commonwealth. That's who our client is - not an individual who is suing someone, but the state. We represent the state because it's only the state (or federal government) via the legislature that can make certain behavior criminal. We are responsible for protecting the citizens of the state from behavior that we have previously decided to be a crime - such as theft, drug use and possession, assault, and murder. 2.) To seek justice. A prosecutor must search for the truth.

I can't describe it better than the U.S. Supreme Court did in the case of Berger v. U.S., 295 U.S. 78 (1935):

The prosecutor is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done…as such, he is in a peculiar and very definitive sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. … He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor - indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one."

This job will demand that you can articulate your position and argue it persuasively to either a judge or a jury. You also need to be well versed in legal training (which is what law school is for). You need to understand the legal system, the law that we're subject to, the Crimes Code of Pennsylvania, and courtroom procedures such as the Rules of Evidence.

What are some common myths about your profession?

The big myth that I hear every day from victims who don't want anything to happen to the person who allegedly assaulted them is that they want to "drop the charges." On television, you see a lot of shows that imply that a victim can either "press charges" or can prevent the police or the district attorney from prosecuting by not pressing charges. That's a misstatement of the law. As a prosecutor, it's my office's decision (and the police's decision) whether or not to bring criminal charges against a person because it's the prosecutor who represents the state. It's the state - not the victim - that is charging a person with a crime. So if a victim wants to drop the charges (common in a domestic violence situation), it doesn't mean that the charges will go away. The state can still prosecute the alleged defendant. In fact, it's my responsibility as a prosecutor to make the assessment whether those charges should be pursued or not. While we respect the victim's opinion, we are not bound by it.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Being a prosecutor is mentally and emotionally challenging. It's the nature of this job that you see the very worst of what humans are capable of. Sometimes, it can be difficult to hear the gruesome details of a child abuse case or a murder case. It's very difficult not to take those emotional lessons home with you when you leave work.

Also, there is a significant amount of pressure that comes with the responsibility of protecting the community. If you fail at your job, an innocent person could go to prison or a guilty person could walk free and neither of those outcomes can make it easy to sleep at night.

What types of continuing education requirements should legal students expect once they graduate and land a job?

Once you pass a state bar exam, you must complete a certain number of legal courses or continuing legal education (CLE) courses within a year. Each state sets its own standards for that.

What are the hottest law specialties? What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating law students?

I don't know that there are hot law specialties (we're not really the "hot" kind of profession!). But most students probably go into civil law. There are so many different kinds of civil and criminal law you can specialize in - personal injury (the commercials you probably see on TV); immigration law; insurance law; corporate law; contract law; property law; employment discrimination; tax law; constitutional law; appellate law; criminal defense; criminal prosecution. And those are only a few of the many.

How available are internships?

Internships are ubiquitous - if you want to work for free. There are probably few agencies that would turn you down if you offered to volunteer without pay or even credit for school. But usually there are paid internships that are floating near every courthouse. Ask around at local undergraduate colleges or law schools, which are a great resource for this type of search.

How can law students plan for the future?

If you're going to succeed in law school, you need to develop (early) a strong foundation in writing. Try to take undergraduate classes that will help you build advanced, persuasive writing skills.

In Closing

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about law in order to be successful in the field?

Absolutely. As Joseph Story once said, "The law is a jealous mistress." Law school is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and time-consuming experiences you can ever go through. You have to learn to see the world differently, to analyze everything around you differently. Sitting for the bar exam is also challenging. You've got to love what you do and what you learn everyday because, at least for the first three years, you will eat, sleep, and breathe it all day, every day.

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